It’s been a restless night, but finally, toward dawn, sleep comes. The alarm sounds; your stomach sinks. It’s still dark outside, but it is time to get out of bed and start the day. Trying to ignore the alarm, you roll over, willing it silent. It doesn’t obey. You surrender and pull yourself out of bed knowing a tired day awaits.
In a parallel universe, the story unfolds differently. The light breaks through the window; it is morning. Rising from bed, you meet the day with joy and expectation. After a night of deep, restorative sleep, the world is bright, bursting with hope and possibility.
We all want the latter scenario to be the one that prevails. I spoke with five professionals who offered tips for how to rest your best in order to live life healthier, happier, livelier, and kinder.
The Sleep Doctor
To learn more about the science of sleep, I spoke with Dr. Samuels, medical director of the Centre for Sleep and Human Performance. The Centre is a Calgary-based sleep medicine centre, where physicians study a full range of sleep disorders. Patients may stay overnight for testing and/or do home sleep testing.
“Sleep is the foundation of recovery,” said Dr. Samuels. “It is the state during which our body and mind recover for the next day.” This recovery enables our mood and demeanor to be good and is critical in cognitive function and memory. When we do not sleep well, our memory, concentration, and mood all suffer. Also a critical time for metabolism, sleep helps to control appetite. When sleep-deprived, the part of our brain that manages appetite is altered, increasing desire for high calorie foods. This can lead to poor weight control as well as other illnesses: diabetes, stroke, high blood pressure, and heart disease. Shift workers are at especially high risk for these conditions.
So what can we do to ensure that we sleep well? For starters, unplug all technology before bed. “Technology is the scourge of the universe,” he proclaimed. According to Dr. Samuels, smart phones, tablets, TVs, and computers all affect sleep negatively when used in the hours leading up to bedtime. “Some people find that though they fall asleep initially, they wake an hour later and are unable to get back to sleep.” In his work with elite athletes whose performance can hinge on a good night’s sleep, Dr. Samuels sets a firm 8:00 p.m. cut-off for technology use.
Another factor to consider is pace of life. “Insomnia is the bulk of what we see in the clinic,” he noted. “This insomnia is due to excessive stimulation. People are legitimately busy, but they are not prioritizing sleep.” As a society, we are busier these days than in former generations, and we rely on technology to stay connected in our careers and interpersonal relationships. For young adults especially, getting careers going and raising young families, it can be tough to find time to wind down in the evening. Unfortunately, this has dire consequences for sleep quality. When we consume technology in the late day hours, our brain keeps trying to process all that information after we turn off the light. As Dr. Samuels said, “Our brain is not designed to just shut off.”
The key to overcoming sleeplessness rests (ahem), at least in part, in developing a night-time routine that preps your body and mind for sleep. “Sleep doesn’t just happen,” stated Samuels. “It has to be tended to.” For this reason, it is important, especially if sleep is a struggle, to make 8:00 p.m. to 11:00 p.m. a time for winding down and relaxing. Turn off technology, and turn down the lights. Late daylight exposure can lead to poor sleep, so keep your home dim during these hours. He recommends no light at all of any kind in the bedroom if you have insomnia. Make sleep preparation your main priority. Your routine could include a warm cup of herbal tea, a book, an easy stroll around the block, or a quiet conversation with a friend or partner.
It is also important to manage your sleep environment. Invest in a good pillow and a good mattress that works for you. Adjust the temperature of your house and/or bedroom if needed. And, Dr. Samuels said, do not sleep with someone who snores if it keeps you awake.
Exercise, caffeine, and alcohol are other factors to consider. He noted it may be better, in some cases, to exercise in the late afternoon rather than first thing in the morning. For instance, if rising to hit the gym at 5:00 a.m. means that you do not get seven to nine hours of sleep, it might be better to schedule late-day exercise instead (4:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m.). And while many of us lean on that late-day cup of coffee to get through the sleepy afternoon hours, he recommends one to two cups in the morning and no more, if sleep is an issue for you. Energy drinks are out of the question. Some claim alcohol helps with sleep, but this isn’t really the case. “Alcohol might help you fall asleep initially, but it does not help your sleep or help you stay asleep.”
As for sleep medications, both natural and prescription, Dr. Samuels recommends first addressing the behavioural side of things, and then, if absolutely necessary, looking into the medication side. “The cornerstone of managing sleep issues is behavioural therapy, not drug therapy.” Seek out an online program or book, and if that doesn’t work, then see your doctor or be referred to the Centre for Sleep and Human Performance. Completely avoid over-the-counter sleep aids, as it has been proven that they do more harm than good.
Resources: Centre for Sleep and Human Performance // Canadian Sleep Society // National Sleep Foundation // American Academy of Sleep Medicine // Sleep Education from the American Academy of Sleep Medicine